History: Originally published as a serial from 1838 to 1839, it was Dickens' third novel.
Plot: The beginning of the book briefly outlines the history of the Nickelby family. And then we are introduced to Nicholas Nickleby, the hero of the novel. His father has died and left Nicholas and his family penniless. Nicholas is not a typical hero: he can be violent, naïve, and emotional. But he devotes himself primarily to his friends and family and fiercely defies those who wrong the ones he loves. Nicholas Nickleby, his sister Kate, and their mother travel to London — because of the father’s death —. They seek the assistance of Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’s uncle. He seems to care about nothing but money and takes an immediate dislike to the idealistic Nicholas.
Nicholas's younger sister. Kate is a fairly passive character, typical of Dickensian women, but she shares some of her brother’s fortitude and strong will. She and Nicholas are very close.
Mrs. Nickleby, Nicholas and Kate’s mother, who provides much of the novel’s comic relief. The muddleheaded Mrs. Nickleby does not see the true evil her children encounter until it is directly pointed out to her. She is stubborn, prone to long digressions on irrelevant or unimportant topics and unrealistic fantasies, and displays an often vague grasp of what is going on around her.
Ralph places Nicholas as an assistant in Dotheboys Hall, a Yorkshire boarding school, and Kate in a milliner’s shop, coldly splitting them apart.
Kate and Mrs. Nickleby move out of their temporary lodgings with the kind Miss La Creevy, A plump, kindly woman in her fifties, she is a miniature-portrait painter. She is the first friend the Nicklebys make in London, and one of the truest.
Living with the Squeers, Nicholas meets the family. Fanny Squeers is the Squeers’ daughter. She is 23 and is beginning to feel the pressure to find a man to settle down with. She falls in love with Nicholas until he bluntly rebuffs her affections, at which point she begins to hate him. Tilda Price (later Browdie) is her best friend, but the relationship is strained by Fanny’s pride and spitefulness. She is full of bluster and is under severe delusions about her own beauty and station.
Young Wackford Squeers is the Squeers' loutish, piggy son. He is mainly preoccupied with filling his belly as often as he can and bullying his father’s boys, to his father’s great joy.
Mrs. Squeers is even more cruel and less affectionate than her husband to the boys in their care.
Nicholas is skeptical of the one-eyed schoolmaster, Mr. Wackford Squeers, with his appalling lack of knowledge and his gruff treatment of the charges, most of whom are illegitimate or disfigured. Nevertheless, Nicholas dares not question his employer until Squeers starts to beat Smike, a severely limited student whom Nicholas has befriended. Smike is a pathetic figure, perpetually ill and a cripple, who has been in Squeers’ care since he was very young. In a fit of rage, Nicholas strikes Squeers, and Smike is able to make a getaway. Then Nicholas, too, departs, and Mrs. Squeers tends to her husband.
Nicholas runs into John Browdie, a neighbor engaged to a friend of Squeers’s daughter Fanny. John gives Nicholas a bear hug for beating the schoolmaster. Smike and Nicholas take the road back to London. Fanny writes a letter to Ralph Nickleby condemning Nicholas as having ruthlessly attacked both of her parents.
In the meantime, Kate has been taken in by Madame Mantalini and her crew of milliners. Mr. Mantalini (real name Alfred Muntle) is a handsome man, with a fine moustache but foul mouth, who lives off his wife. He is not above stealing from his wife and threatens to dramatically kill himself when he does not get his way. Mrs. Mantalini is much older than her husband and equally prone to dramatics.
Because she is young and pretty, Kate works with Miss Knag in the shop itself, awkwardly helping rich, spoiled, young women try on hats. Miss Knag befriends the young newcomer. When Kate begins her employment with the Mantalinis, Miss Knag is quite kind to her, but when her age is insulted by a disgruntled customer who prefers Kate, she blames Kate and begins to treat her quite shabbily. She takes over the business when the Mantalinis go bankrupt, but fires Kate.
Newman Noggs is secretary to Ralph Nickleby. He was once a businessman of high standing but went bankrupt. He is an alcoholic, and his general good nature and insight into human nature is hidden under a veneer of irrational tics and erratic behaviour. He reads Fanny’s letter and then goes to visit his downstairs neighbors, the Kenwigs. Mr. and Mrs. Kenwigs are dependent on the latter’s wealthy uncle Mr. Lillyvick, a collector of the water rate, a position which gives him great importance among his poor relatives, and everything they do is designed to please him so he will not write their children (including their baby, named Lillyvick) out of his will. Their daughter Morleena, is an awkward child of 7.
Mrs. Kenwigs is obviously expecting another child. The family panders to Uncle Lillyvick, for he holds the key to their salvation, if he chooses to leave his inheritance to their girls, which will provide them with a reliable means of subsistence.
Nicholas visits Noggs and tells him about his encounter with Squeers. Ralph’s anger at Nicholas’s beating of Wackford Squeers leads to a vow to destroy the younger man. Nicholas then searches for new employment, temporarily acting as French tutor to the Kenwigs children.
His mother does not know whether to believe her son or Ralph about Nicholas’s attack of Squeers. However, Kate, who has by now replaced Miss Knag in the milliner’s shop and incited her jealousy, has complete faith in her brother. He and his sister embrace, and he leaves with Smike for Portsmouth to find some means of supporting them all. Along the road, they meet the Crummles theatrical family, headed by Mr. Vincent Crummles and featuring the Crummles sons and daughter, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon, a girl of fifteen who has been playing a ten-year-old for at least five years. Nicholas signs on to write a new piece for the company, for a weekly rate of one pound, and ends up playing Romeo, while Smike joins the troupe as the Apothecary. In the audience, Uncle Lillyvick falls in love with the actress Miss Petowker, and they marry, leaving the Kenwigs without a benefactor.
Madame Mantalini’s business is about to be foreclosed, due to her husband’s profligate ways. When she visits Ralph Nickleby for help, she discovers her husband trying to cash in some outstanding accounts he has stolen from her. She announces her intention to separate from him and says that she has taken steps to put the shop into Miss Knag’s hands, a clever way to keep the shop from devolving to her husband, since a married woman cannot own property. Miss Knag now employs Madame as manager, and Mr. Mantolini is left in the cold. It is revealed that Ralph Nickleby had engineered the foreclosure and then stood ready to advance the money to salvage the shop, at a profitable rate of interest. With Miss Knag in charge, however, Nickleby’s backing will no longer be needed, but Kate is fired.
Ralph has arranged to have Kate act as hostess for a party at his house, where he will entertain several gentlemen with whom he does business. Sir Mulberry Hawk is a lecherous nobleman and money-lender, who has taken Lord Verisopht under his wing. Hawk’s friend, a rich young nobleman. He owes both Ralph and Sir Mulberry vast sums. He becomes infatuated with Kate and is used by Hawk to find her whereabouts. When Nicholas confronts them in a coffeehouse, Lord Frederick sees the error of his ways and breaks with Hawk. Some weeks later, they meet again in a casino in London and get into an altercation, an event which leads to a duel, in which Lord Frederick is killed. He is one of the few characters in the novel to undergo a journey, from a thoughtless, drunken boy to a mature young man who dies redeemed and repentant.
Hawk is one of the most truly evil characters in the novel, he forces himself upon Kate and behaves in a thoroughly abhorrent manner. He is beaten by Nicholas, and swears revenge, but nothing comes of it. His reckoning comes when he kills Lord Frederick in a duel and must flee to France.
Kate soon discovers that she is the evening’s entertainment, when Sir Mulberry Hawk tries to seduce her. Ralph sees her to a carriage and realizes the terrible mistake he has made. He admonishes Hawk, but the latter aptly points out that Nickleby would have turned a blind eye had Lord Frederick Verisopht fancied the girl.
In the meantime, Nicholas and Smike participate in a fantastically modified happy ending to Romeo and Juliet, in which, miraculously, almost everyone survives.
Kate briefly holds a position as a lady’s companion to Mrs. Whittleby. Julia Wittiterly is a hypochondriac who acts as if a feather would knock her over, but she has a fierce temper when she does not get her way. Mr. Wittiterly flatters his wife and toadies to her every whim. They are oblivious to the degradation Kate is submitted to under their noses. Kate once again has to fight off the unwelcome advances of Hawk, as she accompanies her mistress to the opera. When Kate takes her complaint to her uncle, he asks her to endure the advances a little longer, until they find “another entertainment,” in order not to spoil his relationship with them. She is horrified, but Noggs gives her the empathy she needs and sends for Nicholas.
Nicholas heads for London the moment he gets the news, bringing Smike. Coincidentally, the pair arrives in a London coffeehouse only to overhear Hawk and Verisopht talking about Kate. A fight ensues, and Nicholas nearly kills Hawk with a horsewhip.
The next day, Nicholas meets the charitable Mr. Charles and Mr. Ned Cheeryble, Charles and Ned Cheeryble: Twin brothers, wealthy merchants who are as magnanimous as they are jovial. They give Nicholas a job and provide for his family, and become key figures in the turning about of the happy ending. They enlist Nicholas to help a young, destitute girl, Madeline Bray, whose ailing father has squandered the family fortune. Nicholas has already met her when he goes to confront Nickleby for mistreating his sister, and he is in love. In the meantime, Smike has been caught by Squeers, while wandering around London. Squeers locks him up, but John Browdie, in town on his wedding trip, frees the hapless boy.
In a coffee room, Nicholas thanks Browdie for saving Smike and meets the Cheeryble’s amiable nephew, Frank Cheeryble, who will fall in love with Kate. Nicholas then visits the Kenwigs, whose latest child has arrived. Nicholas breaks the “good” news that Uncle Lillyvick has married an actress, which prompts resentment from Mr. Kenwigs for his “defrauded, swindled infants.” Nicholas tells Noggs of his love for Madeline Bray, and Noggs very soon discovers a way to help both Nicholas and Madeline, when he overhears Ralph Nickleby plotting with Arthur Gride, an elderly miser and associate of Ralph. He pretends to be in love with Madeline, but is only interested in her inheritance. A coward and a boot-licker, he is a thoroughly unlikeable character.
Ralph promises to forgive Bray’s debts if he gives up his daughter to marry Gride. Nickleby stands to profit in the transaction because Gride has promised to leave his inheritance to Ralph.
Nicholas thoroughly protests this marriage, and visits Madeline, her father, and Gride to convince them of the wrongness of the union. However, to no avail, the marriage is to take place that morning.
Madeline’s father, formerly a gentleman. He is an extremely selfish man who has wasted his wife’s fortune and is dying in a debtor’s prison, oweing vast sums of money to both Ralph and Gride. He fools himself that he is acting for the benefit of his daughter by agreeing to her marriage with Gride, but when he realizes what he has done, he dies of grief before the marriage goes through, freeing Madeline from her obligations.
Madeline lives with the Nickleby’s at this point. Smike falls in love with Kate, but his heart is broken when she falls in love with Frank Cheeryble, Ned and Charles’ nephew by their late sister, is just as open-hearted as his uncles. He shares Nicholas’s streak of anger when his sense of chivalry is roused.
After Smike contracts (tuberculosis) and Nicholas takes him to his old home in the country for rest. However, he dies here, and is buried under a great tree with Nicholas’ father. Before he dies, he sees the man who took care of him before he was taken to Squears school. Nicholas thinks it is a hallucination.
Squeers is involved in the destroying of legal documents, one is a will that says Madeline is the inheritor of a large fortune. Brooker, the mysterious figure who appears several times during the novel, we eventually find out that he was formerly Ralph’s clerk. He was responsible for bringing Ralph’s son (Smike) to Dotheboys Hall. An ex-convict, he returns to extort money from Ralph with the information his son is alive. When that fails, he goes to Noggs, and eventually brings his story to light.
Ralph hangs himself after learning that Smike is the son he thought he had sent away to the country years ago. Nicholas and Madeline get married, and Kate and Frank get married, and they have lots of children who think of their dead cousin Smike often.
Review: The social axe that Dickens had to grind in this story is man's injustice to children. Modern readers my feel that his depiction of Dotheboys Academy is too melodramatic. Alas, unfortunately, it was all too real. Charles Dickens helped create a world where we can't believe that such things happen. Dickens even tell us in an introduction that several Yorkshire schoolmasters were sure that Wackford Squeers was based on them and threatened legal action.
There are no unintersting characters in Dickens. Each one is almost a charicature. This book contains some of his funniest characters. I love Dickens not because of his rather obvious plots, or main characters – Nicholas Nickleby, like Pip Pirrip and David Copperfield, is interesting only when he suffers, once he is all gentlemanned up and prosperous, interest quickly wanes – but because his minor characters, always absurd, comical and not a little grotesque, are sketched with verve, vim and gusto.
In Nicholas Nickleby, we have an entire range, from Wackford Squeers and his squeery family, Miss Snevellicci's papa who, when drunk, goes from dignified to quarrelsome to amorous in a flash, the numerous Kenwigs and their uncle Mr Lillyvick, the collector of water rates, and his wife, the late Miss Henrietta Petowker, Tim Linkinwater, Newman Noggs, Mr and Mrs Wittertily and their page Alphonse, of whom Dickens says "if there were ever an Alphonse who carried plain Bill in his face and figure, that page was the boy", Mrs Alfred Mantalini, a milliner who changed her name after realising that her husband's singularly prosaic name of Muntle, being an English name, would be the ruin of her milliner's establishment, her spouse, Mr Mantalini, a demned fine gentlemen, demmit, with a thousand and one terms of endearments (my cup of happiness' sweetener, the essential juice of my pineapple, a demd enchanting, bewitching, engrossing, captivating little Venus), Mrs Nickleby and her baffling conversations, and the entire Crummles entourage.
Opening Line: “There once lived in a sequestered part of the county Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby; a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason.”
Closing Line: Through all the spring and summer-time, garlands of freash flowers, wreathed by infant hands, rested on the stone; and, when the children came to change them lest they should wither and be pleasant to him no longer, their eyes filled with tears, and they spoke low and softly of their poor dead cousin.”
Quotes: 'Will she call me "Sir"?' cried Mantalini. 'Me who dote upon her with the demdest ardour! She, who coils her fascinations round me like a pure angelic rattlesnake! It will be all up with my feelings; she will throw me into a demd state.'
'Can I live to be mistrusted?' cried her husband. 'Have I cut my heart into a demd extraordinary number of little pieces, and given them all away, one after another, to the same little engrossing demnition captivater, and can I live to be suspected by her? Demmit, no I can't.'
"Love... is very materially assisted by a warm and active imagination: which has a long memory, and will thrive, for a considerable time, on very slight and sparing food."
"Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.”